Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Read Banned Books

As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedom's defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.
            - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Alien, and yet disturbingly common.

Every year around this time, the American Library Association declares Banned Books Week as a way to commemorate the struggles that go on in this country between those who truly believe in freedom and American values, and those who merely say they do.

I read banned books.

This is not all that surprising to those who know me - I read all sorts of books pretty much all the time, and I cannot be expected to keep track of what is and is not on somebody's petty little list. More importantly, even if I could keep track I do not see why I should have to determine whether some loudmouthed few are offended by a particular book before I start reading it. I am often surprised, in fact, to discover that something I read and thought highly of - or, even more surprising, something I read and didn't think much of one way or the other - has raised so much noise beating on the outside shells of closed minds that their possessors have taken steps to make that book go away.

Those people and the horses they rode in on are hereby cordially invited to amuse themselves with other tasks.

It astonishes me that here in what is constantly and presumably without irony referred to as "the land of the free" there are so many braying jackasses eager to tell me what I can and cannot read. Who are thrilled to limit the ideas that I and my children should see, know and believe. Who feel that they have such a corner on Truth that their version of it should be the only one out there.

But you know, folks, we have in this country something called the Constitution. Those people may have heard of it, but after the last eight years it would not surprise me if they hadn't. Despite the best efforts of the previous administration to portray the Constitution as an anachronistic inconvenience to those in power, though, it does still carry some weight around here, at least with me.

Now, the Constitution is not perfect. But the glory of that document is that those who wrote it understood that fact, and they provided a way to fix it. And the first thing they added to it was the idea that free speech was a worthwhile goal in and of itself, and that the proper duty of a well-constituted society was to protect it, preserve it, and let the ideas fall where they may.

It is disheartening to me, as a historian of that document and that period, to see how little credence many Americans give to what they loudly claim are their own values.

There are people out there who think that their religion gives them the right to tell me what not to read.

Here is a hint: it does not.

There are people out there who think that their being offended by a book gives them the right to tell me not to read it.

Here is a hint: it does not.

There are people out there who believe that they are being more careful than I am with my own children, my own values and my own soul, and that this gives them the right to tell my nation, my state, my town, and my library what it can and cannot allow to be said, purchased, stocked, published or distributed.

Here is a hint: it does not.

But such efforts continue anyway, most often it seems by the very same people who insist that this is "the land of the free." This is why satirists will never lack for material. It is also why they will never make any money at it, since so few people in this country understand the point.

The first time I ever deliberately went out and read a book that was under challenge was in 1989, when I read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It wasn't banned here at the time, but there was such an outcry about it around the world that I felt it had to be interesting to read. Where there's smoke, there must be fire, right? And you know what? It was okay. Not great. Not life-changing. Meh. If the book banners had ignored it, it would have gone away on its own without making much of a mark at all. Since then there have been people in the US who have tried to ban it as well, and I'm sure Mr. Rushdie is laughing all the way to the bank when he is not shaking his head in awe at the utter stupidity and moral bankruptcy of those people.

I have discovered since then that quite an array of books I've read have been banned or have had nitwits attempt to ban them here in the good old US of A. The Great Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1984. Catch-22. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Slaughterhouse Five. Cat's Cradle. Rabbit Run.

And those are just the ones that I have read from the Radcliffe Publishing Course's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. Forty-two of those hundred books  have been challenged or banned in the land of the free at one time or another.  Most of the challenged books don't make that list, though.

Of those, the ones I've read that have made the ALA's Top Ten Most Challenged or Banned lists for the last two decades include the His Dark Materials trilogy. And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Captain Underpants. In the Night Kitchen. The Harry Potter series. Arming America. Go Ask Alice. A Wrinkle In Time. The Stupids. The Handmaid's Tale. James and the Giant Peach. A Light in the Attic. The Dead Zone. And a couple of the Where's Waldo books. All of which the close minded and the fearful have tried to keep out of my hands.

Honestly. Where's Waldo.

I'm not sure if reading those has made me a better person, but I know for sure that it hasn't made me any worse. Plus I'm a lot better educated and more thoughtful because of those books. I, at least, think that's better.

It occurs to me that you could make a pretty good required reading list out of the things that idiots have tried to ban.

This past weekend was a long one. I spent most of Saturday morning watching larval lawyers fight their way through the LSATs, only to come home to discover that a friend had died (obviously not a close one, but still) and that there would be a memorial service at my old museum in ... what was it? ... twenty-eight minutes. I made it to the service - you should always go to such things, even if some traffic laws have to suffer for it. It's respectful. But afterward, I needed a break. Kim suggested that we go out to eat and then head over to the nearby Huge Chain Bookstore for a looting and pillaging expedition.

Sorry, gents. She's mine.

Tabitha and Lauren are now old enough that we can park them in the children's section and go off to look at our own things without worrying about them. We'd go over to check on them from time to time, but mostly they were happy to look around on their own.

I never once worried about the books that they were looking at, despite the fact that several of the ones listed above were plainly visible on the shelves. I never once worried that they would be exposed to some horrible idea - they get exposed to horrible ideas all the time. It's called an education. You look at those ideas, figure out what's so horrible about them, and learn from the experience.

Someday they'll read Huckleberry Finn and they will run into the word "nigger" that runs through that novel, and we will have a discussion about racism and how Mark Twain deliberately made Jim the moral center of that book as a way to show how stupid it was to call people names based on the color of their skins.

Someday they will read one of the many banned books that deal with homosexuality and they will wonder why books about their uncles cause so much fuss. They are too sensible to fall for the apocalyptic hype that comes out of the far right wing of the culture wars, and this gives me hope for the future of this nation.

Someday they will read some or all of the other books that people get all up in arms about. Some of them may offend them, and when that happens I hope they will stop and ask themselves why, and learn from that. Some of them will strike them as hopelessly boring, and I hope they will ask why such things raise such a fuss when they don't seem all that big a deal to them. Some of them will hit a nerve and they will see their imaginations fired up in the way that good books do to their readers.

But the important thing is that they will read those books. They will see those ideas. And they will learn who they are by how they react to them.

I read banned books. I do it for myself. I do it for my children. I do it for my country.

And I don't intend to stop.


Kathleen said...

James and the Giant Peach? For real?

David said...

For real. Number 56 out of the top 100 books challenged between 1990 and 2000.

KimK said...

Dave, you should submit this to the ALA magazine for next year!

TimBo said...

The illustrations that got Waldo banned.

Shocking! Our children must be protected!

David said...

So ... children need to be protected from an organ expressly designed to feed young children?

I just don't understand some people.

I know you're being sarcastic, but too many idiots out there actually think that way. Sheesh.